It’s that time of year again where I share my favorite things I experienced in pop culture over the past year. As a reminder these are not necessarily things that came out during 2021 though most of them are. They are however things I enjoyed for the first time this year. Like last year it’s a little bit different because some of my standard categories I didn’t really have a choice in thanks to the pandemic. Hopefully 2022 will finally offer me a full array of choices. But 2021 still had lots to offer, so here we go.
Movie I Saw in a Theater
I only saw one movie sort of in a theater in 2021 and that “theater” was Bengie’s Drive-in, but I’m going to count it because I actually left the house to watch a movie for the first time since January 2020. The movie I saw was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It was fine. I definitely would not have chosen it as a favorite movie of the year, but being the only one, it does qualify for the most memorable movie I saw outside of my house this year.
Movie I Watched at Home
Despite not really being able to go out to watch movies in theaters right now, that is still my preferred method for watching a movie, and I still have a hard time making myself want to watch movies at home. My husband pretty much has to force me into it. One movie I wound up watching on my own and really enjoying though was CODA. CODA stands for Children of Deaf Adults and this movie is about a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her family with both of her parents and her brother all being deaf. They rely on her a lot to help them communicate with hearing people and to help run their fishing business. She becomes involved in a choir at school and starts to have dreams about leaving for a performing arts college, but also doesn’t know how she can leave her family. I thought it was a really great movie that definitely had moments meant to push your emotional buttons, but sometimes you really just want to have those buttons pushed.
I also really loved Tick, Tick…Boom. I’ve never seen an actual production of this show, but this filmed version was excellent. Andrew Garfield really was the perfect Jonathan Larson, and Lin Manuel Miranda directed this movie so lovingly. It really is an homage to theatre itself. If you’re a theatre geek there are so many Easter eggs in it for you. The number, “Sunday”, alone is just pure joy for anyone who loves that world.
Finally there were a couple of animated films I really enjoyed. Mitchells vs. the Machines was a really fun movie and has a fantastic scene set in a mall that is worth the price of admission alone. We also just watched Encanto the other night. The people in one of the podcasts I listen to didn’t seem to like it all that much. They didn’t think the music stood out and was not as good as other things soundtracked by Lin Manuel Miranda. I enjoyed it while watching the movie, but it’s true that none of the songs stuck in my head. But they also thought the lack of some sort of larger villain left the movie a little purposeless, while I actually really liked that the conflict was small and both internal and about family dynamics.
I didn’t read a lot of fiction that I rated very highly this year, although I think I probably read about an equal amount of fiction and non-fiction. I still read a lot of romance this year in terms of fiction and even if I like it, it’s rare that I rate a romance novel that highly. The one fiction book I rated really well on Goodreads was The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. I remember while I was reading it thinking I can’t wait to talk about this part and oh and this part with my book club. Too bad I wasn’t reading it for any of my books clubs. I’ve generally enjoyed most of the books I’ve read by Kate Quinn, but I think this one was my favorite.
Unlike fiction books there were a lot of non-fiction books that I rated very highly this year. I think I got back into my non-fiction groove a little more this year than I have been in recent years. Taking a look at all the non-fiction books that made the top of my list, it seems to me that the overarching theme is, what the hell is wrong with America. The answer in all of these books is a hell of a lot, and sadly I don’t think we have the collective will to do anything about it. Maybe I’ll find something more uplifting to read about in 2022, but I doubt it. This is why all my fiction reading has turned into reading romance novels. I need something to read that’s not about completely terrible things. I’ve linked to my original reviews if you want more information on any of the books.
Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy by Adam Jentleson
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption in an American City by Justin Fenton
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
I watched a lot of tv this year because unlike most of the rest of the world I still did not go anywhere or do anything in 2021. 2022 isn’t looking too promising so far either. I’m so tired. But I digress. Here are the shows that made the biggest impression on me in 2021.
I know some people took issue with season 2 of Ted Lasso. Part of that was the inevitable backlash against something so popular, and some of it was some well-deserved criticism about some of the plotting and the romance storylines. I don’t disagree with some of those things, but it doesn’t matter because overall Ted Lasso brought me a lot of great joy every week. For everything that was wrong with season 2 there were at least twice as many great things about it. For the 10 weeks it was on, I seriously used the thought of being able to watch it on Friday night as a crutch to get me through the week. Some weeks it felt like that was all I had. So Ted Lasso is definitely a highlight of my year tv wise.
For All Mankind
I honestly don’t know why For All Mankind has not become a bigger hit. It’s such a good show. There are now two seasons on AppleTV+ for you to enjoy. It’s an alternate version space race in which Russia made it to the moon first and there are lots of lady astronauts. It’s so good. It’s excellent at both character development, plotting, and creating these super great tense action sequences. Seriously, if you haven’t watched it, what are you waiting for?
Atypical is another show that I don’t feel like enough people watched. It had its fourth and final season on Netflix this year. I honestly didn’t think that Netflix would renew it for a fourth season and then after the pandemic happened I was worried that its renewal would be scrapped like Glow‘s. I’m so happy I got to spend one more season with these characters. I’m very pleased with how the show went out.
Greek was a show I never watched in the mid-aughts when it was on. I finally watched it on Hulu this year and loved it. It’s exactly the kind of teen drama that used to be popular, but that tv doesn’t really make anymore. I miss these kinds of shows, and I was really happy to have this one to watch for the first time. Sadly, I don’t think there are any other shows out there like it that I haven’t already watched.
Mare of Easttown
I loved the world that Mare of Easttown built. Both the characters and the setting felt completely lived in to me, and that is what made the show for me. The murder plot obviously helped propel the story forward, but I honestly would have watched a show without the murder that just involved hanging around with these characters more Friday Night Lights or Parenthood style.
Although there were a lot of tv shows that I really liked this year, for awhile I was struggling to think of a particular episode of any show that really stood out to me apart from its larger whole. I finally figured out what it was though. It’s actually an episode of a show from 2020, but I didn’t watch it until 2021 so it counts under my rules. It’s Season 1: Episode 10 of the show Mythic Quest, “Quarantine”. Mythic Quest is not one of my favorite tv shows. It’s a decent workplace sit-com with some really stand out episodes, but overall a show that is kind of mediocre. The final episode of season 1, which filmed during the beginning of the pandemic is absolutely the best COVID related tv episode that I have seen. They use the video call format to their advantage and there is one moment between two of the characters that had me crying lots of ugly tears. If nothing else watch for the amazing Rube Goldberg set-up at the end.
There was a lot of really good music this year. A lot of artists released albums because they couldn’t tour in 2020 and either put off releasing albums they couldn’t tour behind or spent their quarantine time recording new music. Here are three albums that really rose to the top for me.
Outside Child by Allison Russell
I knew when this album came out in May that it was going to be at the top of my list for 2021, and I am certainly not the only one. Aside from lists only tracking in very different genres of music, I’ve seen this album on every best of 2021 list that I’ve read. It’s a beautiful album sung in both English and French as Allison Russell is a native of Montreal. It really details the abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather and leaving home at a very early age to escape it and then her process of healing from it. It’s ambitious and personal and something I don’t think I’ve heard the likes of before.
Pressure Machine by The Killers
Up until recently The Killers were a band whose hit songs I knew and thought were fine, but not at all a band I really looked into any further or sought out their full albums or anything. Yet, now when fewer people are paying attention to them and most people still know them for “Mr. Brightside” if anything at all, I have become strangely obsessed with them after their 2020 album Imploding the Mirage and this year’s Pressure Machine. Pressure Machine is lead singer, Brandon Flowers’, look at the small heavily Mormon town in Utah where he grew up. He really digs into both the good and bad and living in a small, religious town like that.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs
In a year that has a lot of really great albums out by amazing Black women like Adia Victoria’s Southern Gothic and Amythyst Kiah’s Wary + Strange, I feel a little bad that two of the three albums I’m writing about here are white dude bands that don’t really need my promotion, but look I am a sucker for guitar rock of the sort that The War on Drugs and The Killers make. I grew up in a house listening to 70s era guitar rock. I fell in love with Tom Petty at a young age and he’s still one of my favorite artists. When I was in high school the concerts I went to were bands like The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, and Van Halen. This kind of music is in my DNA and there were a couple of really good examples of it in these two albums this year.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore didn’t come out until the end of this year, so it was a late entry into this list, but I knew the first time I listened to the album it was going to be here. I don’t even have that much to say about it other than that I love the guitar on it and I am happy with every song on the album.
Be Sweet by Japanese Breakfast
Spotify Wrapped told me that “Be Sweet” was my top song of the year and it definitely is one of them. I adore it. This album wound up on almost every top albums of 2021 I read. I however really just love this one song. I don’t hate the rest of the album, but I don’t anything else on it nearly as much as I like this single. I heard that Michelle Zauner originally wrote this song for someone else to sing, and it makes a certain amount of sense to me since it sounds very different to me than other Japanese Breakfast songs. I absolutely love the 80s rock vibe of the song. Definitely a highlight of my music year.
Sanctuary by Hiss Golden Messenger
“Sanctuary” by Hiss Golden Messenger was released as a single all the way back in January 2021 and this song has been a touchstone for me throughout the entire year. With lyrics like
Can’t get out of my own mind”
“Steady with your hope now
That little light’s gotta last a while”
it really spoke to how hard life is right now and trying to hold onto that little bit of hope to keep moving forward. I’m so happy I had it to hold onto for the entire year.
Little Things by Big Thief
I have tried to like Big Thief. They are by far the NPR Music critics’ favorite band of the past decade. They rave about them all the time, but I have just never found a way into them before this song. As I believe I wrote about this song when I wrote about it for my New Music Friday posts, on paper I should hate this song too, but I really don’t. The lyrics don’t really resonate with me, but sonically I love it despite many of the component parts being things that I usually hate like the distorted guitar sounds. I was actually shocked when this song didn’t show up on my top songs in my Spotify Wrapped because it’s the single song this year that I would sometimes just put on repeat.
I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs feat. Lucius
Words cannot express how much I love the song “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”. Sometimes there are songs that I just feel in my bones either because of the guitar or the harmonies and this song hits me on both counts. Like as soon as the guitar kicks in at the beginning of this song I can feel it like a thrum in my soul. As someone who has never used drugs it’s the closest I can imagine to being high when it happens. It doesn’t happen to this extent with very many songs, but oh man when it does.
I don’t have much to choose from in this category because despite all the many concert tickets I bought over the course of the year thinking surely we’ll be out of the worst of this pandemic by then, whenever then was, I didn’t go to most of them. The only actual live music I got to see this year was The Newport Folk Festival and Amos Lee at Wolf Trap both in a span of a few weeks in the middle of summer before Delta hit and things really did seem like we were finally getting out of this pandemic for a few brief, shining moments. Amos Lee at Wolf Trap probably would have rated here even if there had been a lot more competition from all the shows I didn’t actually go to. It was my first concert back, which of course gave it special meaning and felt very apropos since his weekly Thursday night Instagram concerts during the first year of the pandemic really helped keep me going. I really enjoy him as a performer and I’m not sad that he was one of the few people I got to see live this year. I’m really hoping 2022 is better than it seems like it’s going to be at the moment and that I can finally start feeling comfortable going out into large crowds.
In some respects I really wish that I had not been able to carry the Online Concert category over from last year as I was really hoping to be back to seeing actual shows on the regular. There are fewer online concerts these days because of course artists are back out touring in front of actual people again. Recently though there have been a handful of artists who live streamed the final shows from their current tours. It makes sense because at that point they’re not losing out on any ticket sales for actual live shows, but getting to supplement the money they’re making with people accessing the live stream. I’ve watched a couple of these. Ideally I would like to get back to actual live shows in 2022, but until that feels safer than it does now I’m happy to at least have this little bit of live music. I really enjoyed the Delta Rae show from The Basement East in Nashville a few weeks ago. I’ve never actually gotten to see them live but have wanted to for a long time, so this show was a nice little treat and something that made me definitely want to see them in person some day.
Broadway Theatre Production
Ha, ha! Nope! I wish I had been able to see a Broadway show, but didn’t happen. Fingers crossed for March 2022 when I’m supposed to see The Music Man and Company.
Baltimore Theatre Production
Again nope to the nope. I could have actually seen some live theatre in Baltimore had I wanted to, but I wasn’t ready to risk my life for it. So I didn’t. Center Stage who I usually have season tickets for did go on this year with an in-person season. I was hoping they would offer some virtual options too, but they didn’t. I also have so far had one show, Tootsie, at the season tickets we do have at the Hippodrome that we didn’t go to. We renewed our season tickets for 2020-2021 right before the pandemic hit, so they just moved those forward to this year since there were no shows last year. I wouldn’t have bought season tickets at this point otherwise. I guess our seats will be waiting for us if we ever feel like going. Pretty sure we’re not going to see Prom in January based on current case rates, even though I really wanted to see that show. I’m definitely sitting out the Donna Summer musical in February because I’m for sure not risking my life for that show.
Online Theatre Production
I think there were still some online theatre things I watched at the beginning of 2021, but none of them stand out in my mind at this point. What I will use in this category though are the recorded versions of actual staged shows that showed up this year. I would like it if there were more of these in general because not everyone has the means to go see a Broadway show. Over the summer we got Come From Away, which has already become one of my favorite shows. Despite what seems to be happening now, watching it again this summer was a good reminder that people do have the ability to come together despite tragic circumstances and fight for a common good. Hopefully we’ll get back to that place one day because we sure feel pretty far from it now.
I also, just a few days ago, through methods made the BBC think I was in Britain so that I could stream the recently recorded version of Sutton Foster in Anything Goes on the West End. Anything Goes is one of my favorite musicals of all time and I loved seeing Sutton Foster in it a number of years ago on Broadway. The like 7 and half minute tap number that ends Act 1 is still one of my favorite production numbers of all time. When I need a pick me up I still watch the recorded rehearsal of that number and Jonathan Groff’s “Miscast” version of it.
Make Me Smart
Make Me Smart has been sitting atop my list of favorite podcasts ever since it started 5 or 6 years ago. It was still my favorite podcast of this year. If I had a new episode to listen to it was the first thing going in my earholes before any of the dozens of other podcasts I listen to. Kai and Molly’s discussions about what is happening in the world helped keep me sane and process everything that’s been going on and of course made me smart about a lot of things I didn’t know about before. Sadly, Molly Wood left the podcast for a whole new career outside of journalism at the end of November. I will still listen, but I don’t think it’s going to be as good without her there. Kai and Molly just have a really good podcast rapport that isn’t the same with any other hosts. They’ve had a myriad of guest hosts over the years while either Kai or Molly were out on vacation or working on other projects and it doesn’t matter which one of them was out or who was filling in, it was never quite the same.
Out of the Blocks
Out of the Blocks has also been one of my favorite podcasts for the past several years. They had their final season this year, which is sad but understandable given their format. It’s a podcast where they spend a significant amount of time on a single block in Baltimore and just share the stories of the people who live and work there. It obviously became an impossibility to continue what they were doing once the pandemic hit. They had one final season this year where they actually went back and caught up with some of the people they had spoken to in previous podcasts to see what has changed in their lives since they were first on the podcast and how they’ve been weathering the pandemic. It was a perfect way for them to go out and one that made me shed lots of tears while listening to it. It’s such a good look at humanity and how we all have joys and struggles and no matter what they are.
The Recovering Catholic with Katie Pruitt
Although I’m not actually Catholic I have really enjoyed this new podcast The Recovering Catholic. Katie Pruitt is one of my favorite new musical artists of the past couple years, and this year she also started hosting this podcast where she talks about her own experiences growing up in the Catholic Church as a lesbian and how harmful it was for her, but there is obviously a part of her that is still trying to reconcile her experiences and her thoughts on God. Mostly she talks with a lot of other musicians about their experiences of faith some who are still practicing and others who similarly to her found their experiences with religion harmful and who have since walked away even though they sometimes still feel the pull. She also has an episode with one of her theology professors from college that was really interesting.
Listen to Sassy
I’m definitely not over here only listening to high minded podcasts. I listen to a lot of goofy stuff too. Listen to Sassy is a new podcast that just started at the beginning of 2021 in which the cohosts Tara Ariano, Pam Ribon, and David T. Cole break down issues of Sassy magazine. I loved Sassy in my middle school and early high school years. They have lots of amusing things to say and it’s a fun little nostalgia trip to hear what was being written about 30 years ago.
Too Long; Didn’t Watch
Another new podcast from this year that I really like is hosted by one of my favorite tv critics, Alan Sepinwall. In Too Long; Didn’t Watch he has a celebrity watch only the first and last episodes of a tv show they’ve never seen before. They share their thoughts on the show and he has them guess what happens in the seasons in between the two episodes they watched and whether it has made them want to watch the entire show. You get delightful episodes like Jon Hamm watching Gossip Girl and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman watching My So-Called Life. It’s a delight.
As I alluded to earlier in this post, I love a good teen drama tv show. I loved One Tree Hill and am currently doing a rewatch as I listen along with this new podcast where the three female leads Hilarie Burton, Sophia Bush, and Joy Lenz do an episode by episode rewatch podcast. They’ve also had a lot of other actors and people who worked on the show on so far too. I know there are a million podcasts like this out there, but this is the first one I’ve ever listened to and I’m enjoying it.
Adia Victoria’s Call and Response podcast should probably also be listed in the section above, but it was getting really long and I knew I was going to talk about a specific episode from it here so I didn’t include it. Just know that I think the whole podcast is great and not just this one episode. In the podcast Adia Victoria speaks with mostly musicians but sometimes other people like authors to talk about music, race, history, and musical lineage. The stand out episode of this podcast this year was her discussion with Allison Russell recorded live at this year’s Newport Folk Festival. It’s a beautiful episode in which Allison talks about the glorious set she put together to end Newport on Sunday night and of course her life and the music it inspired in her much acclaimed album Outside Child. It’s about pain, but also forgiveness and fighting to create a better world.